There’s a difference between being okay with being by yourself and truly feeling alone. Sometimes we’re told that all we need to do to feel less lonely is to learn to accept ourselves, and I guess on some scale that’s true. I like being by myself sometimes. I’m a big reader, and my favourite way to wind down post work is to come home, make dinner, watch a little Netflix and then read until I fall asleep on the sofa. A routine that is mostly done entirely alone, but never makes me feel isolated and lonely. It’s conducted mostly in shared spaces in my apartment, I am never unwelcoming of my roommate coming in to talk to me whilst I’m reading. The routine makes me feel calm.
When I started to get worried about the overwhelming isolation I was feeling in the last quarter of last year was when I was coming home from work and going straight into my room. I would put on Gilmore Girls and lie in my bed until I fell asleep. Unusual because I spend very little time in my bedroom, I don’t like to work in there or read in there. It is a great place to sleep though. Sleeping was my way of cancelling out the fact I was feeling lost and alone. It was also a way to try and numb the fear that I didn’t know how to break this cycle.
We don’t like to admit to feeling lonely, perhaps because it’s the lowest social rung you can do. If you’re a loner on TV you’re always a weird loser, and that stigma sticks through to real life. If I admit that I feel lonely people are going to pity me, or think there’s something wrong with me. But in a society that is increasingly putting emphasis on showing off our lives it’s hard to not feel disconnected. We are constantly creating an image of ourselves online to look cool, to look at our best, to show off our friends. I’m totally guilty of this sometimes too, even if I don’t realise I’m doing it. We also see more of other people’s lives than we ever have before, from close friends to vague acquaintances and sometimes it’s hard to not feel inadequate.
Loneliness and anxiety go hand in hand. We suddenly have FOMO (fear of missing out – I add this because I am old and didn’t know what it meant for so long). We feel guilty for staying home instead of going out to something everyone else is at. That anxiety feeds into worry which makes it stressful to go out again which leads to more anxiety and the loop seems never ending. Loneliness feels like your life is foggy, there’s a weight on your shoulders that wasn’t there before. It makes the most talkative of us completely silent, it makes the smartest of us unable to think properly, it makes the most positive of us unable to feel hyped about anything. It gets to a point where you become incredibly self destructive.
Breaking out of this is hard, because recognising that this is what you are feeling makes you experience shame. Talking about how you’re feeling sometimes is impossible. I’ve been told to force myself out of the house even when I don’t want to go but honestly I don’t know how much that helps. I know I’ll feel better once I’m out but I also know when forced I do usually stay pretty retreated into myself. Social interaction is key to breaking the cycle though. Small hang outs, where you pick the place and time time and who you want to hang out with. Starting with one on one with the people you love most and building up to going out normally. Learning to feel okay with the fact you don’t have to do everything, that sometimes sitting at home with pasta and a good book is totally okay.
Volunteer. Giving back to the community helps so much when you feel lost and alone. It’s a connection to the world, and the satisfaction in knowing you’re giving back. Find a group that interests you, there is so much that you can do to make your community, city and the world a better place. When I’m lonely I always feel like I’m being unappreciative of what I have. There is much worse going on in the world, but you shouldn’t feel hard on yourself for feeling down. Alas modern life is full of stresses. Personally my job was saving me day after day. Being able to teach a classroom of kids to be open, emotionally healthy and accepting of all around them is a joy to me. I’m determined to help all kids that come through my classroom to have the best start they can.
Make loneliness more positive is what I read a lot. Life live in a way you feel comfortable. If you don’t like big parties then don’t go to them, it’s not the end of the world. Socialise on your own terms, learn to be okay with being by yourself not just in your own house but outside in the world. When loneliness turns chronic is when it starts to get dangerous, when you start to hate your surroundings, everything feels hostile and you begin to retreat into yourself. If you can read your warning signs and know how to act to avoid it getting bad it will help.
Most of all try and talk to people around you. It’s hard. It’s so bloody hard and I know it is. This is coming from a woman who was raised to keep her emotions locked up tight. I’ve spent 32 years of my life learning to break down my barriers and sometimes when I feel like I’ve made so much progress I’ll lose my footing and end up like 100 steps back in the wrong direction. But I keep trying to move forward. Even if it’s someone totally disconnected from the situation, a therapist or a helpline. Try and get the thoughts in your head out and find some clarity. Walk around your neighbourhood, walk in a new neighbourhood, walk downtown in your city, walk around lakes or ponds or near the ocean.
Try and disconnect from social media. I know, I know it’s hard and you will make excuses as to why you can’t outrightly delete it all. But get rid of it on your phone, save it for your laptop because at least that limits the time you spend scrolling through timelines. You’ll think about it a lot, you’ll find yourself hitting the app space where Facebook used to be, you’ll at first be lost at how to find out what’s going on without Facebook sending you an event invite but in the end it’ll help with being calmer. My use of Instagram and Facebook now is limited to just posting things, I do not scroll through timelines or feeds to see what everyone else is doing. It’s a slippery slope where you end up on there for hours and feel bad.
The big thing to remember is that loneliness isn’t something to feel ashamed of, it’s actually something a lot of people in modern life feel. That pang in the pit of your stomach it creates isn’t a sign you’re weird and no-one wants to be your friend. It’s there to remind us to reconnect, in whatever way we choose.
Maryam Hassan is a 32 year old Photographer, Montessori Teacher, Wearer of Yellow from London who transplanted herself to Chicago in 2015. She likes punk music, hash browns, animal facts and mangoes.
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